The Initial Teacher Education We Need, Why We Don’t Have it, and How to Get it

Over the course of the last Parliament, the government introduced far-reaching changes to Initial Teacher Education (ITE) in line with the various other changes introduced to the system – aiming to deregulate the content and models of provision of ITE and introduce greater flexibility and innovation into training through increasing new providers, specifically via school-based routes.

Although on the face of it this model has been successful, with more than 50% of training places in school-led routes, my contention is that the overall content of ITE (and so the quality of provision) has hardly changed at all. Unless significant changes are made Initial Teacher Education – in all its forms – will continue to be blocked from delivering the sea-change in both supply required, and quality intended.

In ITE progressive ideas still dominate and, across the sector, the subject or domain knowledge of trainee teachers still does not receive the attention it should. To emphasise this point in particular this short essay borrows its title from E.D. Hirsch’s influential book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Within its pages, Professor Hirsch identified progressive ideologies and the absence of structured knowledge in the curriculum as causes of under-achievement in American schools. It is similarly my contention that without more subject-knowledge specificity in ITE, and without more domain specialists involved in the training of teachers, standards won’t be transformed on a national scale. Moreover, teaching itself won’t be attractive enough to solve the looming staffing crisis. The best teachers don’t go in to teaching (nor stay in it) because of pedagogies, assessment protocols or behaviour techniques – though each is important and useful. The teachers that our nation’s young need are driven to teach because they want to share the subjects they love with a new generation. For this to happen more consistently, sustainably and widely, we need to fix what I see as the Catch-22 of ITE.

The Catch-22 of ITE

In valiant efforts to improve both the supply and quality of teachers the government has enabled the distribution of teacher training away from traditional universities. Diversifying structures for the provision of teacher training was intended to improve both the supply and the quality of Newly Qualified Teachers because innovative, small and/or school-based providers could implement or develop new approaches, while attracting those not interested in going back to university.

The intention was that new approaches would flourish through these new routes in to teaching resulting in a sea-change whereby progressive orthodoxies would be diluted. This was, in part, motivated by the assumption that conventions in the training of teachers in this country have resulted in several generations of teachers whose practice inadvertently undermines the purpose of schools as places where pupils come together to learn that which they cannot find out for themselves – and to become skilled in ways they could not alone – from adults who are more knowledgeable and skilled than they.

Yet too many trainees continue to be accredited without having been taught that their authority in the classroom is founded, first and foremost, on their subject knowledge, and too many are accredited as teachers when their own subject knowledge (even with Russell Group degrees), is limited; such as historians who know little pre-1914 other than Tudors and the Norman Conquest, or mathematicians avoiding long division or whose recall of times tables is slower than the one second required for success in national examinations. Why isn’t closing these knowledge gaps higher on the ITE agenda? Even in respected university ITE programmes so-called subject knowledge is dominated by subject pedagogy rather than subject depth and breadth; trainees might be taught how to critically evaluate a history text with students, rather than the known historical content behind a text, for example. Even at Cambridge University (to cite an example of a university where I once taught), academic staff from the Faculty of History have no formal nor regular input in the training of teachers of History, and this is replicated across the country.

The teacher training picture has a number of parallels with the introduction and expansion of the Academies programme, but one key – and devastating – difference. Many organisations have accepted the invitation to run new teacher training structures, but (as with Academies) few have innovated beyond the structural and financial.

The key difference is that unlike the Academies programme, new structures in teacher training have not even been given the mandate to be freed from the orthodoxies they were partly conceived to challenge. Specifically, while Academies and Free Schools do not have to teach the National Curriculum, nor comply with STPCD, all providers of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) must still train to the National Curriculum, including covering Phonics (even in Secondary training); they must ensure all trainees meet the Teachers’ Standards and comply with the DfE’s “Initial teacher training criteria” and satisfy Ofsted’s ITE expectations as expressed in the “Initial teacher education inspection handbook”. To do the latter two, and be financially viable, providers find themselves using the Teachers’ Standards as their training curriculum, and many – from Teach First to SCITTs – end up having to revert to the very universities, whose orthodoxies they were founded to supplant, for the provision of compliant training and the PGCEs that the graduates they have signed up to train require. It is a system-built Catch-22.

Let’s explore the constraints in a little more detail:

Genericism. For exactly the same reasons that a generic National Curriculum doesn’t work, and that abstracted ‘levels’ were inconsistent and unreliable, the generic nature of the guidelines controlling what is actually required of a teacher, as expressed in the Teachers’ Standards, act as a real constraint to deep, as well as subject specific training. The impact of the review of Teachers’ Standards has been rather similar to the effect of the Rose Review of the Primary National Curriculum: in intending to reduce the compliance burden, the now cross-phase and utterly generic standards are the only thing that auditing and inspecting bodies have to structure their duties around. The obvious and predictable result is an environment where a focus on the skills of teaching, as opposed to knowledge and subject specificity within teaching, continues to dominate. In written assignments for PGCEs trainees are encouraged to write about teaching and pedagogy, rather than to evidence development of discipline knowledge. Even subject knowledge audits, which are a step in the right direction, can be self-administered by trainees, and the onus is often on them to read-up on content they are unsure of in their own time. Ofsted’s inspection judgement descriptors do refer to ‘strong/good… subject and curriculum knowledge’ but guidance on how this can be judged is not specific enough. Similarly, subject knowledge enhancement has been added to the wider provision and funding offer, reflecting recognition of its importance, but because in terms of compliance this is an add-on, not requisite, it remains under-valued.[1]

Compliance. ITE is dominated by a compliance culture. For example, a new ITE provider, even one training only 10 student teachers, undergoes a two day NCTL audit on compliance alone. These audits typically result in around 10 pages of recommendations, many of which require numerous man-hours to create further evidence packs and reports. Qualified Ofsted ITE inspectors take part in these audits, and providers encouraging knowledge and subject specialisation – particularly in primary – have, I’m told by colleagues, been asked to think about how to provide evidence that, by emphasising subject specific approaches, neither trainees nor pupils will be harmed. This has echoes of the widespread complaints from schools in previous years that Ofsted had a predetermined agenda and a ‘preferred style of teaching’. Although there have been concrete steps taken to eliminate that bias in school inspections, and emphasise to schools and inspectors that it is outputs, not inputs that matter, the same old-school approach seems to permeate ITE inspection, leading to a sector more motivated to comply with convention than truly innovate.

Economics. The school-based providers who are succeeding to do things differently and better than the universities are only able to do so thanks to resources, in particular funding, beyond training grants and salary subsidies. Central funding is simply insufficient to stretch across both the training and mentoring of teachers, the burden of producing compliance evidence, and the associated administration costs in man-hours of managing provision and recruiting. I estimate that to administer the recruitment, funding and compliance of ten student teachers (and recruit new cohorts), a School Direct provider will need to employ one full-time individual simply to handle ITE selection, UCAS requirements and Student Loan arrangements. Providers need to be able to respond to enquiries from prospective trainees quickly to avoid loosing them to providers with permanently manned phones. This gives large institutions, particularly universities, a significant advantage in terms of both recruitment and running provision. In terms of school groups that succeed, one large Academy chain I know of depends upon independently generated funds while another’s is heavily subsidised by fundraising. Other groups of schools make it work by accepting a short-term loss, believing that trainees will serve their schools and pupils in the longer term. This will become impossible in small Trusts as overall funding reduces, and because the EFA is increasingly strict about submitting balanced budgets. An unintended consequence of the economics of ITE is that new and small providers are disincentivised from training for the wider sector; it motivates them to prioritise anticipating their own staffing needs only, rather than those of the region or nation.

Balance of power. Advocates of a school-led system have never contended that there should not be partnerships with HEIs to deliver elements of Initial Teacher Education. The policy question, however, is where the balance of power lies – and specifically who takes the lead in a partnership and what that means. The theory of School Direct is that school-based partnerships commission HEIs, in order to have a theoretical underpinning to the practical school-based delivery that suits (in structure, content and timetabling terms) the provision that the school or group of schools has set up. But just as the economics makes managing associated administration unviable for many, so too does it alter the power balance in a partnership. I know of several instances where school-led consortia felt little choice but to accept the conventional programmes or modules that are used in PGCEs; a smaller Academy or MAT is unlikely to have the economic muscle to strike a bespoke Partnership Agreement with a large HEI, and from the university’s perspective, rolling out a standard PGCE-style programme both reduces the cost of designing new provision, and also reduces the real risk that NCTL auditors or Ofsted inspectors would not rate the university element of the provision highly if it did not follow ITE conventions and conform to course format and content that regulators recognise.

What Can Be Done?

My contenton is that the current reforms to ITE are insufficient to move us away from the status quo and thereby ensure a greater supply of the teachers of the quality we need. A more radical set of prescriptions is necessary, which are summarised below.

First, give non-university providers the freedom to truly innovate in training (rather than comply with a straightjacketed precedent), by allowing a grace period of perhaps two years from NCTL audit and Ofsted inspection, as Free Schools now have. Or award all providers the ‘Innovation Status’ as awarded to Researchers in Schools (RIS) to allow them greater flexibility. Achieving an Outstanding judgement is such an important designation for successful recruitment of trainees (and thus financial viability), that providers of all sizes are motivated to conform to conventional practice so as not to risk a lesser judgement.

Second, the Teachers’ Standards must be revised. Although the Government believes that the new standards are much more exacting and specific than previous versions, they are still generic and effect a focus on skill development and execution. A new set should move towards subject specific standards. Without this, the ‘Standards’ will remain the default generic content of the typical ITE curriculum, rather than serve as the measure of it; and innovative providers will feel constrained in moving away from them. In addition, the generic nature of the Standards enables small providers to offer generic training sessions, and only subject-specific mentoring. While this is ‘compliant’ practice, it is not desirable in a climate committed to increasing subject specific knowledge.

In designing these new standards, Government should define the purpose of ITE explicitly around the primacy of knowledge. And it would be helpful to make clear that the purpose and nature of studying subjects in schools and universities are related but not the same. Universities focus on research and developing potential researchers (which their funding encourages them to do and which they also do supremely well), whereas schools need to lay firm foundations. In other words, the job of schools should be to share the best that has been thought and known. As Michael Fordham, the teacher and former Cambridge academic, puts it, “the way researchers research something is not necessarily the same way that novices should learn something”.[2] Until this important distinction permeates schools – and the training of teachers – achieving the English Baccalaureate will not be the preserve of all, and the levelling power of knowledge will not reach widely enough, because school teachers will strive to the university standard of research methodologies, to cite history once again: creating historians rather than delighting in teaching History. Michael Fordham has described this issue as the epistemology of a discipline being confused with the pedagogy of a subject. Revised Standards, which are domain specific, can prevent this; more than this, they can enable.

Third, and building on new standards, Government and Ofsted must take a similar approach to the inspection of ITE that they have done in mainstream education – making explicit in criteria, the handbook and inspector training that there is no preferred model of input for ITE, and that inspectors should only focus on the output when inspecting quality: namely; are a teacher’s pupils making progress, showing knowledge and understanding?[3] Subject specific Standards would help inspectors do this.

Fourth, Government should investigate ways of building capacity amongst non-university providers. Grant funding could be inversely proportionate for small and new providers to meet the staff costs of administering and delivering ITE, and to help address the imbalance of power.

Perhaps most radically, and in the longer term, Government should consider the structure and aim of primary ITE. Specifically, whether it ought to move away from the dominant generalist route, towards (as a start) two separate specialist strands, which we could term STEM and Humanities routes. Generalist teacher training works in the US, where schooling and undergraduate degrees are broad-based. In this country, where students undertake an increasingly limited curriculum from 16, we do not turn out graduates with the subject breadth to then be able to teach across the primary curriculum in a way that both helps underperforming children whilst stretching the most able. By introducing some form of specialisation at primary, providers would have more opportunity to train teachers in greater depth.

Government is to be congratulated for recognising the importance of ITE reform for both recruiting teachers and ensuring that they are equipped to improve life chances. But the situation at present is not ideal, and there is a real risk that in response to supply shortages, Government may row back on the commendable aim to diversify the provider base for ITE, and reinstate the primacy of universities across all routes. This would be a grave mistake. This essay is an attempt to show how, together with Ofsted, Government can achieve the strengthening of teacher training it has committed to in the Single Departmental plan: 2015–2020. The suggestions herein would help us towards achieving not only the teacher supply we need, but the teacher supply our young deserve.


[1] In conversation with the author, 2015, and based on the work of P.A. Kirschner, J. Sweller and R.E. Clark, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experimental, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”, Educational Psychologist, 41(2) 2006, pp.75–86.

[2] Michael Fordham, in correspondence with the author, November 2015.

[3] There is evidence that some ITE inspectors are looking rigorously at subject knowledge; this is clear from (for example) the 2014 inspection of Canterbury Christ Church University provision, where the reporting team referred to regular monitoring of progress on subject knowledge audits and trainees being made aware of the work of subject associations.

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